In May 2017, Ann M. Ishimaru, Liliana M. Garces and Sola Takahashi published their findings in the Peabody Journal of Education on Disrupting Racialized Institutional Scripts: Toward Parent-Teacher Transformative Agency for Educational Justice. Ann Ishimaru graciously agreed to discuss her findings with us about how institutional scripts impact parent-teacher engagement and more. Listed below is the full interview.
What triggered your interest in researching institutional scripts and how it translates into parent-teacher engagement?
I’ve spent a number of years researching how schools and systems might transform towards greater equity. One way I’ve seen powerful changes come about is as a result of educators engaging in fundamentally new and different ways with families who have been systemically marginalized by systems. These families and communities have profound expertise about their own children and their cultural practices and language, histories, experiences, interests, needs, and priorities. So why don’t we (as educators and educational leaders) collaborate with these experts to improve our practice and our schools?
This question led me to the literature about organizations and how they change – or too often – maintain the status quo. Those theories helped me make sense of why some things (e.g., parent-teacher conferences and open houses) seem like “normal” ways for parents and teachers to interact, whereas other things (e.g., collaborating to improve instructional practice or engaging minoritized families in school leadership) so rarely happen. We tend to operate within a broader set of taken-for-granted assumptions about how we should interact with each other and who has expertise – we call these institutional scripts. And schools are microcosms of our broader racialized society. So this means that parent-teacher interactions in schools are shaped by institutional scripts that are racialized in particular ways, from stereotypes of the “problem” African American parent to the Latino family who “doesn’t value education.” When educators default to these racialized institutional scripts about minoritized families, we disregard parents’ expertise, relegate them to passive support roles on the sidelines of education, and may actually reinforce racial inequities. I think this hardly ever happens consciously, but it’s a huge barrier to our ability to transform our educational systems towards educational justice.
In your paper, you mentioned how historically teachers and parents are perceived as natural enemies; how did we get to this point?
This notion comes from a sociologist from the 1930s, Willard Waller, who theorized that parents and teachers have opposing interests in schools. This is by no means a “natural” or universal view – we also have a concept of parents as first teachers as well as that of parents and teachers as natural allies. But regardless of the language and frame that get invoked, the dominant norms and expectations in schools shape the roles of parents and teachers. Those assumptions tend to play out in ways that maintain the status quo of the organization. As I mentioned in the paper, even when policies and structures intend to foster partnerships between families and schools, the institutional scripts can influence so-called partnerships to default to a conversation about how parents should better support their own individual child at home to do better at school. Rarely do we foster collaboration between families and educators to change the culture, structure or practices of schooling to foster racial equity.
What recommendations do you have for establishing family-teacher partnerships that outlasts specific initiatives? How do you combat “interest convergences”.
Note: Interest Convergences – when concessions are made to marginalized groups only insofar as such concessions hold value for dominant groups and preserve their positions of power (Bell, 1980)
Collaborations between families -especially those marginalized by our systems- and teachers can only become real when we begin to name and balance the power differentials – rooted in deep histories and structures – that exist between them. When we enter the conversation only in terms of converging interests, scholars like Derrick Bell and others have shown historically how that ultimately preserves the power held by dominant groups (he and others point to the Brown v. Board of Education decision as a classic case of interest convergence where whites conceded to desegregation to advance their interest in enhancing their global perception and then implemented it in ways that preserved white advantage).
A number of scholars have begun to consider how centering differences and interdependence might build solidarities between different groups or actors to go beyond interest convergences that merely preserve existing power asymmetries. For families and teachers to build solidarities, we can begin by recognizing the expertise that families bring to the table, targeting systemic change in collaborative endeavors, and designing opportunities to interact that disrupt the dominant institutional scripts about what families can and cannot contribute to educational change efforts. Practically speaking, this means that if we are serious about fostering more equitable schools, we as educators need to recognize we don’t have all the expertise we need on our own. But simply putting a bunch of parents (of color) in a room with professional (mostly white) educators won’t cut it. Our default ways of being and interacting in schools and society are likely to constrain the possibilities for those interactions to lead to real change. We have to look beyond our default checklist of “engagement activities” and take a learning stance towards families and communities as we work collectively to shift policies and practices at multiple levels.
In your paper, you argue that school administrators operate from a deficit model or “plug-in” involvement. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
This model is the predominant model of parent engagement in our schools, so it’s not specific to “some” administrators, educators, or schools. Ask just about any parent or teacher in K-12 education and they will be able to recite the list of activities that constitute this model – flyers in backpacks, newsletters online, PTA meetings, principal coffees, parent-teacher conferences, open house/curriculum night, volunteering in the office or classroom, fundraising activities, and so on. These seem so “normal” and innocuous to us that we hardly even think to question them (except when we have to experience them as parents….). But Veronica Terriquez calls these “plug-in” opportunities for involvement because the structure and agenda are pre-set by schools in ways that limit what parents can do in them – they have little choice or agency, they are primarily recipients of information, and their sphere of influence is severely constrained. At best, they can provide “input” so that professional educators (and sometimes privileged parents) can make the actual decisions behind the scenes.
Like a ton of “engaged” parents across the country, I recently attended one of my children’s curriculum night – over the course of 2 hours, I probably spoke about 10 words total to a teacher, in the form of a question that there was no time for the teacher to answer, and barely spoke to another parent. We all – parents and teachers alike – tend to feel trapped in these rituals, but there’s no law that dictates they have to play out this way. Formal educational leaders can play a particularly pivotal role in reinforcing – or opening up- this model both in terms of redesigning the structures of involvement and in terms of supporting teachers in rethinking their practices in relation to families in fundamental ways.
How can educators combat racialized institutional scripts and create equitable family engagement efforts?
My paper highlights three co-design concepts as an important starting place for disrupting these scripts and fostering more equitable family engagement. First, what’s co-design? We might think about co-design as a very different kind of process for making important decisions in and around schools – I’ve seen it get used for things like what to teach and how, how to build the capacity of teachers and parents to foster student learning and even how financial resources should be allocated or what a district should do to improve. It goes beyond listening sessions and providing feedback to collaborating with those most affected by inequities – students, families and communities themselves – in reshaping how we go about schooling. Leading education scholars like Kris Gutierrez, Yrgo Engestrom, Megan Bang, Shirin Voussoughi and many more have really led the way in helping to operationalize and articulate this approach (see the 2016 special issue on Participatory Design Research in Cognition and Instruction if you want to learn more!).
The three co-design concepts I highlight in this paper include reframing expertise, surfacing and examining contradictions, and attending to power in relational dynamics. My co-author and I used the example of a parent education curriculum co-design process to illustrate what these looked like in an actual district. First, we recognized parents as the experts on their own children by creating a design team that was predominantly composed of parents from nondominant racial/ethnic communities. We met with them first to build relationships, learn from their stories and experiences of inequities in their schools and identify their priorities for what they wanted to learn and how. They identified bullying and cultivating children’s strong racial and cultural identities as two top priorities. When the teachers, principals, and district administrators joined the parents and heard these priorities, the educators reframed what the parents were saying into “edujargon” (e.g., that’s in our Second Step curriculum already, that’s what we do in PBIS) and dismissed bullying as an issue that was important to address in this space. Our team surfaced this contradiction – between the ideal of parent-educator partnerships and the reality of educators talking more than parents and questioning parents’ priorities and experiences – by asking the group to reflect on excerpts from the transcript of that joint meeting. This process helped parents, teachers, principals, and district leaders to talk about how power was playing out in the meeting. The parents decided to proceed with teachers on developing the curriculum, a process that appeared to disrupt the racialized institutional scripts and build collective agency between parents and teachers.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your research?
YES – I want folks to know about the Family Leadership Design Collaborative, which represents the next level of work on these concepts and practices that I’ve undertaken in collaboration with Dr. Megan Bang. It’s a multi-year national research project and network of over 50 family leaders, community organizations, scholars, and organizations supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation who are working to center racial equity in family engagement. Collectively, we ask: How can communities, families, and educational systems co-design new possibilities toward community wellbeing and education justice? Our first phase entailed multiple convenings and design circles in 10 different communities across the country – and our second phase, which is about to launch, will dive into a subset of those partnerships to do in-depth work on developing new practices, measures, and tools to support shifts in policy and practice. We are excited about what we are learning and have already begun to share some co-design products and processes in the field!